The Sound Scrubber
George Kraemer, PhD
Professor of Environmental Studies and Biology, Purchase College
It would be hard for a single number to describe the Long Island Sound. It’s home to more than 120 species of finfish, bordered by 600 miles of shorefront, the source of a 10-million-inhabitant-supporting watershed, responsible for up to $8.9 billion in value to nearby economies (like our own) every year, and filled with 18 trillion gallons of water. The issue is that much of that treasured resource is at risk for becoming an aqua dead zone because of pollution. Yet George Kraemer, PhD, a professor of Environmental Studies and Biology at Purchase College, is working on a program that has shown promising results in saving us from that bleak scenario—and making a dent in our fuel concerns at the same time.
“All these environmental problems are not easy fixes, because they’re so complex,” says Kraemer, 54, of Greenburgh. “Nature has devised, through eons, systems that function well in a certain way with a certain balance. Anytime this is thrown off-kilter, the outcomes are at the same time unexpected and often negative.”
To reinvigorate the Sound, Kraemer tries to restore the balance that’s lost when “over-fertilization” by nitrogen—mostly from sewage treatment and cars’ internal-combustion engines—causes imbalances in species that eventually rob the ecosystem of oxygen. By selectively placing seaweed and mussels that will soak up the excess nitrogen (as well as other pollutants) and then removing the whole setup, Kraemer and his partners have developed a system that appears at once sustainable and fast. The seaweed, for instance, doubles in biomass in as few as five days and has the potential to remove thousands of tons of the nitrogen every month, depending on the type and amount of seaweed present. The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the Environmental Protection Agency have been impressed enough to help fund the work.
Kraemer points out that removing that level of pollution isn’t just about the species balance in the water. “This natural system provides services for us for free—fish, shellfish, tourism. It’s a regional economic driver,” he says. “So there’s more than one reason to protect the quality of local systems in any way we can.” And still another reason to clean it up—and clean it up with help from Kraemer: The project is finding ways to convert the used seaweed into biofuel and feed for farms.
Charles Yarish, PhD, a professor in the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at the University of Connecticut who oversees the research in the Sound and has been working with Kraemer since 1999, is glad Kraemer signed on. Yarish says Kraemer is “a very energetic person and a darned good scientist. He’s a great marine ecologist, a very good biostatistician, very good in writing, aquaculture, et cetera.”
For his part, Kraemer is hoping he can change how we think about our roles as humans in the environment. “For a long time, we humans have viewed ourselves as sort of separate from other plants and animals, like we’re not bound by the same rules. But we need to remember that we are.”